With silent steps and careful movements, his trainings as a mercenary easily revealed themselves as Vick slowly made his way through the underbrush of the forest.
What should have been a quiet morning of hunting had been interrupted by the sound of falling of trees and smoke, and with animals fleeing in all directions, he had decided to investigate the disturbance. As he got closer to the source, the forest begun echoing with the voices of people and he quickly took to the shadows.
Putting away his bow, Vick reached for one of his azurite swords as he edged closer to the opening that had not been there four days prior. Peeking out from the side of a large tree, he spotted a number of tents and various armed men doing busywork around the camp.
Carefully scanning the company, one of the patrols caught his eyes: a portly man who was more round than tall, and carrying a bow in hand. Unlike the other patrols walking about, the man’s movements were light like that of a seasoned hunter. There was an alertness about the portly man, and he held an arrow to his bowstring, always ready for the draw.
“!” Quickly dodging behind the tree, he barely managed to hide himself as the hunter looked in his direction. His right hand tightened its grip on the sword and he grabbed onto the other with his left. ‘How many more are in those tents?’ Vick wondered to himself, having only counted eleven heads that were out and about.
Waiting in complete stillness, the sound of alarm did not go off nor did anyone approach his position.
‘There’s no time for this. I have to warn the village.’ Hastily making up his mind, he ducked back into the undergrowth and returned the same way he came.
Navigating through the forest, he returned to the temporary camp that he had set up that morning in preparation for his kills. The dolsha that he brought with him was grazing quietly on the plentiful mint bushes strewn about, and he quickly saddled the horse.
Due to the slow witted beast being less than compliant with speeding through the trees, it was already high noon by the time he reached the outskirts of the forest. The plains and rolling hills of the land were now in view, and in the horizon, he could almost make out the brown fields of Esperen that had been recently harvested. “Yah!” With a command, the stubborn dolsha began picking up its strides upon the open fields.
“You’re back early. Nothing today master Vick?” A man questioned with a smile of contempt as he rode into Esperen.
“No time for this today, Elond. Gather the other guards and meet up at gran’s. I’ve information to discuss.” Leaving the aggravating man confused, he continued through the village toward the Prancing Myrtle.
“Vick?” A comely young lady with short brown hair called out to him as he entered the inn. Wearing an old patched up dress that had been given to her by the owner, she was carrying a tray of drinks.
“Saadra, where’s the old lady?”
“Gran said she was going upstairs for a bit. Is something the matter?”
“Yes. Serve your drinks and go gather the others. Tell your sister to help.” He quickly instructed and dashed up the stairs. “Gran! Gran where are you?! GRAN!”
“Shaddap! I can hear you just fine!” A loud voice bellowed from one of the guest rooms and a small old lady poked her head out of the doorway. “What are you doing back so early, and what did I say about running up the stairs?!”
“I saw people in the forest. We have to make a decision right now.” He replied, and her irritated expression immediately vanished. “I know you and many of the others don’t want to leave but we cannot stall this out any longer. I cannot say for certain that they’ll pass by peacefully, but even if they did, Esperen will not survive what is to come.”
“We’ve already paid our blood taxes, what more do they want from us?!”
“How about let us not wait to find out?”
“Gah- what in the world is happening??”
“Gran, you need to make a decision NOW.” Vick coaxed, spotting her hesitance.
“DAH! Vauun ‘halahk!” The old lady spat out angrily, and stomped toward the back room.
“Kh-Hahahaha!” Vick exploded with laughter, prompting her to turn and glare at him once more before grudgingly entering her room. “Vauun ‘halahk, huh?” He chuckled to himself. Vauun was the name of the god of selflessness, and giver of life. ’Halahk, a gveril insult literally meaning a rotting horn or an unscrupulous and wicked person, which could also be construed as a rotten genital. Her sudden outburst had caught him off guard, and ended up helping to evaporate much of his anxiety.
Although she was stern, short tempered, and stubborn, the old granny was quite lovable and had grown on him ever since their return to Esperen. Currently, their group of twenty-six were occupying four rooms of her inn and in return for the hospitality, were helping her around the place along with running errands and doing menial jobs for the village. Many of the girls had also lent a hand in helping with the year’s harvest, and a few of them were now learning how to farm. From farming, to cooking, to laundry, to delivering messages for the villagers, their group was adapting to the rural life quite rapidly.
He himself had become the inn’s personal hunter, procuring various fresh and raw ingredients per the old lady’s demands.
As the sound of the disgruntled compliance reverberated back to him, Vick grinned and quickly returned downstairs.
Waiting at the bottom, “I sent Sarah to call the others. What is going on?” Saadra questioned, her voice sounding worried.
“Remember that discussion we had a while ago after the tax collection? It’s time. We can’t stay here anymore, and neither can the villagers. The aggregating forces are amassing too close to us already and if we stay, I cannot guarantee that I will be able to protect you all.” With the solemn answer, he could see the sudden turmoil within the young lady. Their new life had just begun, and it was already time to move again. “Do you understand, Saadra?”
“Y-yes. I will go pack right now and help the others when they get back.” She replied, walking past him and up the stairs.
“Should we be worried?” An aged man was staring at him. It was Diller, a regular of the establishment and the person he had almost gotten into a scuffle with when he and Kaidus first arrived in Esperen.
“I asked Elond to gather the other guards. I’ll speak when they’re here.” Vick replied, sitting down by himself at one of the vacant tables.
“Fuck, don’t tell me those bastards are back for more of our stocks? How do they expect us to survive the coming rinol?” One of the customers pondered out loud.
“Those will be the least of your worries once the southern army comes.” Vick replied dryly, knowing full well that his assertions would infuriate them.
Ever since learning about the south’s conscription of able-bodied men, he had been advocating for the abandonment of the village. Jarnlan, a large town to the north had become the focal point of recruitments, and rumors were now coming through—via traveling merchants–that Karpes had begun to follow. It would only be a matter of time before Esperen was embroiled in the events taking place.
“You keep saying that, outsider, but what do you actually know?” Another man questioned. “Even if they do come- actually, I say let them come! I would love to see them try and steal what we do not have. See them take what they have already stolen. There is nothing of worth here for them.”
The room went silent.
“Puh- AHahahahhaa!” A chorus of laughter quickly shattered the silence. “Yea, because them boys with spears and swords have nothing better to do than to torment folks like us. Esperen was unaffected the last time there was a war, and as we have already paid our dues, I see no reasons for them come after us this time either.”
The room’s pointless chattering began again. In silence, Vick quietly waited by himself.
A number of girls returned and promptly went upstairs to pack on his instructions, yet those they were waiting for never arrived as noon slipped away.
Eventually, *Blam!* the door to the inn slammed open, and one of the men they had been waiting for burst inside. “Everyone! We’ve got trouble!”
“Trouble?” Diller questioned, and shot a glance at Vick.
“They’re coming from the western road! A group of them!”
All eyes looked to him accusingly. “That’s impossible… there’s no way that they noticed me.” Vick stood up from the table and without another word, bolted out of the inn.
By the time he arrived at the village entrance, there was already a large group of strangers there. Numbering a little more than a dozen, they were armed and shouting indiscriminately while holding one of the village’s guardsmen at sword point. Along with the group, many people had also gathered near the entrance including those he had called for earlier.
“H-help me! Please!” The hostage screamed.
“Yes, please do help him.” A man with short black hair stepped forward and scanned the line of villagers. Better equipped than the others, he was wearing a set of almost pristine plate armor with only minor dents and scratches. “All we’re asking for is some food and supplies to help feed and strengthen our forces. Share with us what you have, and we shall leave peacefully.”
“The King’s men have already taken what little we had! We’ve nothing more to give!” A lanky woman holding a child in her arms screamed from the side, followed by a number of resounding echoes from the others.
The armored man looked back to their hostage. “It seems they do not value you.”
“P-Please! I- I don’t want to die! Please!” The terrified guard begged again as his captor placed the sword against his neck, holding back only enough to not break through flesh.
“On behalf of the esteemed Lady Inareh, all your provisions are now property of the newly formed Southern Guards. Surrender what has been requested of you, or have it taken by force.”
“What Lady Inareh?! We’ve just paid our dues to the Countess of the south!!”
“The Countess has recently vacated her position. Lady Inareh is in now charge, and she is demanding your loyalty.”
“This- This is robbery! You can’t do this! No!” A man cried out angrily against the abuse.
Having heard enough, a lone shadow shot out of the crowd of onlookers toward the group. Like an arrow he passed the armored man before anyone could react, and from a low angle, his azurite swords flashed upward followed by a piercing cry that tore through the area. “Run!” Vick commanded as the severed hand and sword plopped to the ground. Seeing the witless fool frozen and motionless, he grabbed the guard’s collar with his left hand and forcefully pulled the man away. Flicking his sword out before him, he barely managed to defend against an axe swing from the front.
“M-MY hand!! You cut off my hand!!” There was a loud roared of agony along with the sound of heavy panting and panic.
Swerving away from the frontal assaults that were coming at him, Vick quickly arched his body back to evade a horizontal slice from behind as the armored man attempted to take his head. Using the evasive maneuver, he planted his free hand on the ground and kicked back with his legs for a backflip while at the same time delivering a counter to the man’s chest plate. The slash forced the man back a step, buying himself enough time to quickly regain his footing and reposition himself against the group. Twisting his azurite sword into a reverse grip, he drew his second one and lowered his stance. “You’ve no more hostages. Tend to your wounded and leave.”
“Ngggghnn! Guu- You piece of- Fuck!!” The one-handed man cried out, trembling with pain and anger as the others attempted to stop the bleeding.
“You drew your weapons with the intent to kill. You should have expected nothing less.” He warned with a sharp glare to the group.
“A swordsman?” The armored man felt along the gash that had been inflicted on his chest plate without taking his eyes off of Vick. “Your movements are surprising, but do you think you can fight us all?” Keeping his composure, the man lowered the tip of his longsword to the ground and changed into a two-handed grip. He slowly edged his left foot forward, preparing himself for a death strike as the others drew around him.
Seeing the aggressive formation, “Get back!” Vick shouted to the villagers and quickly adjusted his own stance to better dodge and counter the incoming blows. Judging from their attacks and reactions to his own earlier, he easily outclassed all of them and should be able to win. Yet, from the look in their eyes, he was not their target.
“Go home! All of you!!” Diller’s voice came from behind and for once, he was glad to see the unruly man. Carrying clubs and wood splitting axes, four of them came to his assistance. “Took you all- Tch!” Evading to his right, Vick skillfully dodged a sudden downward slash from the front. “Whatever you do, don’t let them through!” He shouted as another attack came from below. Occupied against two attackers, the others quickly rushed past him, moving after Diller’s group and the villagers.
‘Fuck!’ He cried out internally as his counter attack against the armored man simply slid off.
Without flinching this time, the man barreled into Vick and forced Vick back a few steps. With all his might and pulling on his longsword, the man twisted his body and sent an arching swing at Vick’s side.
Metal screamed against metal as Vick was forced to use both his swords to block the attack. His body shook with the force of the blow and the second attacker quickly lunged at him. Instead of retreating, he lowered himself and pushed the armored man’s sword upward, allowing himself to dash under. Releasing his defensive hold against the longsword, he swiftly spun around and immediately threw a slash behind him with his left.
There was the sound of his sword scraping metal briefly as it moved through its horizontal arch, and then the ever-familiar sensation of sharp steel going through leather and flesh.
Unfazed by the attack, the armored man lurched forward as his partner’s chest was sliced into. With sure footings, the man angled his sword before him into a powerful thrust.
Bringing his freehand forward, Vick barely managed to deflect the thrust as it grazed the left side of his stomach. With his right keeping the man’s sword at bay, he twisted his body and brought his left sword up against the armored man’s neck.
“CEASE YOUR ACTIONS!” A voice bellowed through the sound of fighting and screaming. Before them, two of the villagers had been caught and were being dragged forward with knives to their necks. “Drop your weapons or they die!”
“You idiot! What are you doing here?!” Diller screamed in anger, seeing that one of the two was his wife.
Vick looked back to the armored man and there was a grin on the man’s face, a smugness that was daring him to keep going. Glancing around him, two of the men who had come to help were on the ground bleeding, while another was already dead. Diller was the only one who still looked to have some fight left in him but with his wife a hostage, the situation was looking quite dire.
“I will not repeat myself! Drop your weapons!” Another threat.
Having seen plenty of hostage situations, Vick tightly held onto his sword as he struggled to solve the disaster. By attacking first, he had orchestrated the entire situation. Yet, there had been no two ways to go about it in the first place. From the rumors of what has been happening to the other villages, there were no circumstances where blood wasn’t spilled. Whether the people had willingly given up their possessions or had them taken by force, there was always casualties.
“I’ll give you a choice. Lower your sword, and I will put in a good word for you with the Southern Guards. Kill me, and my men will slay as many as they can before you can get to them.” The armored man threatened with a smile on his face.
‘I can only save one of them…’ Vick thought as he judged the distance between himself and the hostages. A good ten strides away, if he took them by surprise, it might be possible to disarm one of the men before they plunge their knives into the hostages. He shot a glance at Diller who had already drop his club. With very little options, Vick slowly lowered his sword.
*Zwssssh!* something sliced through the air and one of the men holding the hostages grunted before falling to the ground.
Turning his head, Vick caught the gleam of metal as another arrow flew straight for the second kidnapper. The sound of footsteps came from the village entrance behind them, and he turned to see another group of armed men charging in their direction. Another arrow zipped by, picking off someone else. Following the path of the projectiles, he spotted a portly man staggering behind the group. Bow in hand, the man had already nocked and drawn his weapon again.
“Do not let any of them escape!” At the front of the group, a tall man with short blonde hair and an unkempt beard was shouting loudly. In his hand, the man was carrying what appeared to be the empty hilt of a sword.